I have this recurring nightmare: It’s June 2015, and I am back in Hyde Park for my college reunion. I’m with my friends, and we’re hitting up all the old haunts: Uncle Joe’s (or whatever its newest name is), Thai 55, and, of course, Kimbark Liquors. I’m getting excited to see my old a cappella group perform, but I slowly realize with dread: It no longer exists. I wake up in a sweat, only to realize that I’m still at the U of C, and my group is safe and sound.
Maybe my nightmares are a bit peculiar, but this dream is an all-too-common reality for many RSOs on our campus. Where have the student porn magazines and anachronistic battle warriors of yesteryear gone? They were but flashes of brilliance in the ORCSA pan.
Making a student group last more than three or four years, I’ve learned, is seriously hard work. In some sense, this is endemic of any four-year program. A student with a great idea arrives on campus and sets up a really neat student organization. The group thrives for two or three years, until the original core graduates. Without strong leadership, things start looking like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
There is another absolutely essential ingredient to making RSO last. As Wyclef Jean would say, “dolla dolla bills y’all.”
Luckily, we have two fabulous funding bodies, the Student Government Finance Committee (SGFC) and Annual Allocations (AnnAll), which have enough resources to fund the needs and fancies of every single RSO on campus.
Well, while SGFC and AnnAll do help, I think you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of RSOs who have gotten every dollar they’ve requested from our student funding bodies. How does the group cover the extra cost? What about student groups who need more money than SGFC or AnnAll could ever appropriate them in a year? Take, for instance, the cost needed to pay the conductor of my a cappella group a living wage. This is not to criticize our student funding bodies; it is completely unrealistic that they could or should fund every single RSO request in full. Leaders are responsible for raising the additional funds themselves through bake sales or charging for performances. But Chinese buns and $5 tickets, as I’ve been made painfully aware, only get you so far.
This is the point where I would start listing out all the ways the University could be but is not helping out RSO leaders. However, Student Government (SG) and ORCSA have taken some pretty creative initiatives that could help make student groups more financially sustainable. For instance, SGFC is starting to allow allocations for fundraising. This way, there will be more immediate turnover from bake sales and other small-scale efforts.
What I’m really excited about is a joint pilot program between ORCSA and the Alumni Association to help student groups fundraise by reaching out to their former members. If successful, this program would be wonderful on all sorts of levels. First, it would make larger, well-established RSOs less dependent on the funds they get from SGFC and AnnAll. As a result, there would be more money available for allocations to smaller, younger groups. Second, it would provide professional experience for RSO leaders. Fundraising, despite what you might think, is pretty difficult, and you need extensive training to be good at it. In pairing students with Alumni House staff to develop and implement a plan specific to their groups, the pilot incorporates a distinctly practical element into an all-too-theoretical University of Chicago education. Lastly, the program has the potential to build closer ties between the school and its alumni by encouraging them to invest in student life on campus.
All right, so far I kind of sound like an infomercial for this program. It does have some serious drawbacks. Alumni of the College are notoriously stingy in their donations, so there is a significant chance that RSOs will have a difficult time getting any money from them, especially in the current financial climate. The money spent on newsletters, luncheons, and gifts could exceed the return. Also, the program is targeted at groups with a long history and large body of former members. Younger, successful organizations (such as a certain a cappella group) could benefit from this kind of financial stability the most.
The initiatives taken by SG and ORCSA so far are great, but I’d like to see more. How about helping RSOs find and apply for grants? What about a service that pairs student leaders with alumni mentors or advisers? In helping RSOs to become sustainable and institutionalized, the University will not only improve the overall quality of student life, but also help us have an impact on our campus that lasts well beyond our short tenure here.
Ben Halbig is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society and NELC.